In Praise of Index Cards

By now you know that I read a lot. But you probably don’t know how I struggle to retain some sense of what I’ve read. Sometimes I comment in my daily journal, sometimes add pages to a notebook dedicated to writing advice, sometimes I make a quasi library card and add it to my index file by topic. None of these are perfect.

A few weeks ago I started a reader’s diary, full of good intention and common questions: Did I finish it? Would I read another book by the same author? Would I recommend it to someone? Well, you know the cliche about hell and good intentions. Definitely not a path I recommend.

The first graduate course I had, decades ago, was library research, and I should have invested in an office supply store, I used so many index cards. Now I’ve reverted to 3×5 cards, but with a twist. Not only do I cite the author, title, year of publication, but now I add a comment about the plot line, the characters, the style or the pacing, whatever seems useful to have handy in the future.

As I gleaned from the failed diary, a few of the books noted there were damned with DNF–Did Not Finish. That’s good information for me to keep. And now I can briefly say what makes me slam the book shut, stuff it into the library return bag early or return it to Libby (a free digital library app accessed through my library card).

Index cards are cheap, non-threatening, and easily sorted. Those who are addicted to electronic screens can create the same sort of catalogue, but I take comfort in the physical presence of paper. I need not sweat a power outage or a cranky hard drive.

This record keeping will not change my life, but I like to know that if I want to recall a particular book, all I need is a card from the box. Sometimes simplicity is best. I recall seeing a photo of a successful novelist’s office with a dozen or more boxes filled with index cards. Beautiful, a thing to aspire to. And when I die, easy for my family to dump into the recycle bin.

Paz Effect

Reading Octavio Paz’s poems challenges me. He goes deep and wide, mythic and intense. His work silences and moves me, but if I keep him close I will perhaps learn to write with courage. His female figures are stunning, earthy and unabashedly eternal. As I read though, I cannot find my own words. I close the book. I put the phone on the charger, wrap a holiday gift, peel the price tag from a new notebook, small things to distract me. Again he  dares me to write bigger, deeper.

Instead I go out for coffee, chat with friends. I’m intimidated by his huge body of work. I’ve used up too much time and ink and achieved little. Then I recall a line from the Tao te Ching: “Do your work, then step back.” I splatter enthusiasm onto the page, decide that I am a link, not a destination. I’ve tripped over awe and envy, and now I  acknowledge a little sourness on my tongue. Then again I feel comforted having the work of a master to teach me. Promise to try, as Frost said, to get a few poems to stick, and know that to do so, I must write them. And finish the novel that too often I call the damned novel, because it too makes me aware of the limits to my skill. I dare not call it talent. I struggle with this knot, pick up one thread only to lose another, roll around like the dog scratching its back on the rug.

There’s benefit in admitting one’s ambition toward perfection, an impossible goal, but the carrot that pulls me forward. I’m not sorry about this turmoil. I’m better for having put it on the page and finding the energy in it. Tension holds me up like the tendons in my joints, steady and fluid. I feel better now. #OctavioPaz #poetry

Lost in Bookland

It’s been a long time since I spent time here. So where have I been? Oh, mostly in my chair, chocolate nearby, and a book in my hands. Just what I need with the onset of winter–technically a ways off, but last week we had a doozy on the Front Range of Colorado–cold, snowy, good reading weather. Here’s what I have to confess:

Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human, and her Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, both poetry. Ms. Harjo is our current Poet Laureate of the United States, and our first Native American appointee. If you have one of those magical speakers, try telling it to play Joy Hargo. I did and got two hours of her poetry and music. She’s an accomplished musician, plays the saxophone.

The Western Woman’s Reader, edited by Lillian Schlissel and Catherine Lavender. This one I stumbled on at a thrift store and it’s a valuable find. The blurb: “Explore 300 years of the American West with the women who have shaped its history.”

Richard Blanco’s poems, City of a Hundred Fires. Even if you don’t lean toward poetry (although you should), these will convert you. Who knew a civil engineer could write poetry? Well, this one can.

Paul Theroux’s On the Plain of Snakes, a tour guide to Mexico that makes me squirm, given our fraught relationship with our neighbors. This book is on my tablet, thanks to an app called Libby, which allows me to borrow digital/audio books with my library card. A marvelous thing while I was traveling and great for snow days when I’m snuggled in at home.

Now, excuse me, but I’ve just started Cynthia Ozick’s Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, & Other Literary Essays, and I really must get back to it.

#EcoInfo

Chunk Reality

Reading Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within, I took her advice and “fell in love” with the first thing I saw when I looked up from the book. Well, shoot, what I saw was my own foot in a black sandal, propped on the corner of the coffee table. Really, Kim? My own foot? Okay, I’ll try. And I glanced at her list of “new words,” another recommendation. Ah, pollex and hallux, meaning thumb and big toe. Okay, I have two big toes. This has to go somewhere.

And it did, other than misspelling pollex, I dove in and came up for air an hour or so later, having landed a good sized poem. Addonizio’s advice isn’t exactly new to me. I’ve long admired “thing” poems that showcase the tangible world and find meaning there. The prompt worked because it brought me close to one thing and its parts. The process is called chunking.

I am relearning this. The world is way to big for my small brain and worried heart. Otherwise, going forward I see so many issues to track that I shut down, concentrate on jigsaw puzzles or crosswords. But shutting down is not a wise option. So I am learning to chunk the worry, pick one issue and pay attention, see if I can help relieve my angst and make a difference, however small, in the chaos that is civilization.

Writing witness poems and stories in our age of political fragmentation, I cannot continue to practice scatter-shot activism. For me, the key issue is climate change. True, it has a thousand moving parts, but it supersedes so much else. If I can’t breathe, I can’t vote. If I don’t vote . . . well, that’s just not an option. Writers can, must, respond to the world as it is. Else what good are we?

#KimAddonizio #ThingPoems

Poems Behave Like Feral Cats

If I dwell on my list of poem titles, I break out in a cold sweat. What am I going to do with all of these poems? Then I take a deep breath and the word SUBMIT appears over my head, a cartoon light bulb. If I believe that writers must share their gifts–and I do–then merely feeding fat three-ring binders on the shelf in my office is wrong. As I’ve been reminded often, no one will ring the doorbell and beg to read my work. More likely that bell tolls for Amazon, FedEx or UPS.

How then to share via the submission process? In our digital world I use a lot of sites/apps/devices. The cost of submitting digitally is about what it would cost in postage, paper copies and manilla  envelopes. And I know that the cloud is not a fluffy freebie. It‘s a huge bank of energy gobbling computers in some remote building, maybe a used missile silo. I don’t really know where my Dropbox is. To me it’s a cute little icon at the top of my screen. Also important to me are Duotrope, Submittable, Word 365, Numbers, my aging Mac Mini, Acer monitor, Logitech keyboard, and Epson printer. So much hardware and software to manage. But it must be doable because I do it.

Once I’ve written several drafts of a poem, it often goes to one of two critique groups, is revised and then added to a Dropbox file “Poems,” and a print copy tucked into a binder, alpha via title. The title alone appears on a six-page spreadsheet (yeah, that’s about 200 individual poems) that shows me if a particular piece is in submission or waiting to venture out. One column also tells me where a poem has already been rejected. No use annoying editors who have already wished me luck elsewhere. Then there’s the red submissions binder where I keep an alpha sort of markets that I routinely contact and a print copy of the spreadsheet (remember, my hardware is aging faster than I am and will one day fail). Once an editor says “HELL YEAH” I eliminate the data on the spreadsheet and note the acceptance on the paper copy in the binder! Whew, I’m tired just trying to explain this, but it works, mostly.

When I finished my MFA, a faculty advisor urged us all to apply for an NEA grant every year until we got one. When would I find time for that? More importantly, that sort of po-biz holds little interest for me. Over the years I’ve been happy to be part of a loosely connected community of writers and that is itself my preferred station in this literary life.

#WritingLife #SubmissionsManagement

All About Poets #5

Typically, my poet focus here is on poets I have known, face to face. Well, what was it Emerson said about consistency? “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds …” Who wants that? Not me. But today I’m thinking about W. S. Merwin. I’ve leaned on and learned from him the only way I could, by reading with great admiration his poems and essays. So, I took him along to a poetry open mic on Friday via a compilation of his work, Migration: New & Selected Poems. I read the last poem in the book, “To Impatience” and his “most famous poem,” (according to Dan Chiasson in The New Yorker, September 18, 2017), “For the Anniversary of My Death.”

Poets and poetry lovers meet in Longmont, Colorado, the last Friday of each month. This month, despite the promise of snow, two friends and I headed ten miles north to join the party. For one thing, the Longmont poets are a delight and the venue is gorgeous. The city of Longmont turned its abandoned firehouse into an arts center. Each month the displays change and the main room turns into a venue for poetry.

And thus the community of poets grows. As I read, those who knew Merwin’s work nodded and smiled. Those who didn’t know, scribbled his name on whatever was handy. So the work of the poet, the work of Copper Canyon Press, the Lannan Literary Fund, about twenty or so living, breathing human beings were united. No one paid us, no one charged us, there was no news flash about argument or deception. The evening was balm to a hurting world. I’d say a world less beautiful after Merwin’s departure, but he joins the vast, energizing cloud of those who keep me sane.

Gluttony

How little resistance I have for books. I walked into the library, slid two novels by Donna Leon into the return slot, a machine that reads the barcodes into another machine that tells the library that I’ve returned these two Guido Brunetti mysteries. What the digital system cannot do is record that I actually read the books. Nor if I liked reading them or not. For all the library knows, I might have used them as paperweights on my desk. Dear Reader, I read them and longed for more.

But I came to the library intending not to carry any books home this weekend. Because if I do, I’ll read them. And I already have poems to critique for Monday morning, a poetry reading to prepare for this coming week, and a hefty assignment for the workshop looming on Monday evening. Like any other addict, my intention means nothing.

Sitting in a quiet corner of the library, I have three books on the table beside my easy chair: James Wood’s How Fiction Works, Mary Robinson’s Climate Justice, and Elaine Pagels’ Why Religion? Gluttony is one of the seven cardinal sins, so I’m a sinner. Mea culpa; wanna make something of it? I also have a hold at another library for Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing, recommended in Adrienne Rich’s Essential Essays: Culture, Politics, and the Art of Poetry, which is, partly read, on my coffee table. Despite the assignments for Monday, I’m going to start with Wood’s book. It’s the smallest one on the stack and if I don’t dawdle, I might finish it before lunch.